When reactionary Southern Rep. Howard Smith in 1964 had Congress add the word “sex” to the workplace section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he unwittingly set the stage for working women to file suit against employers who discriminated against them either in lower pay, sexual harassment, pregnancy leave, promotions and more. In “Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work” ACLU attorney Gillian Thomas manages a remarkable feat – she entertains readers while transmitting the impact of both the law and its litigants in actual cases.
Thomas examines 10 cases, decided between 1971 and 2015, that changed the way women are treated at work. But this is not dry case-law coverage. She manages to make plaintiffs beginning with a waitress in Florida named Ida Phillips, who sued the Martin Marietta Corporation over not being allowed to apply for a job because she had a pre school child, into fully developed characters in one of the great legal success stories of our time. These women may not have become household names like Lilly Ledbetter, but they are just as important.
For example, Mechelle Vinson, an African American bank clerk in Washington, D.C. was the catalyst in adding the phrase “hostile environment” to the language of discrimination. For three years, her supervisor at the bank had besieged her with sexual innuendo and outright blackmail of work in exchange for sex. She managed to find a woman solo-practicing lawyer who started the fight that led to a judgment by the U.S. Supreme Court that what was once considered routine activity by male bosses against women employees to be illegal under Title VII.
It wasn’t just low-level employees who were helped by the “no discrimination because of sex” provision. A woman who thought she was on track to be made a partner in the big accounting firm Price Waterhouse was stunned when sexual stereotyping (“We shouldn’t promote Ms. Hopkins because she is the wrong kind of woman.”) prevented her from getting that promotion. It was only one of the many cases that used excuses based on old-fashioned notions of women’s “personality,” dress or demeanor to deny women their workplace rights.
Thomas’s book explains the legal proceedings in detail without talking down to readers, but always in a conversational tone. We witness mothers with young children watch their kids grow into adults before their cases are finally argued. We see struggling young lawyers taking on cases they never realized would reach the highest court.
“Because of Sex” is a gift from author Gillian Thomas to future generations of working women who need to know their rights, and to women long on the front lines in the fight against sexism, showing them just how important it is to continue to speak out.